Are Field Based Incident Management Systems the Death of Radio?
Combating emergency incidents requires extensive information transfer and collaboration between office based incident managers and field based responders. While radio has been the main collaboration tool for more than 50 years, it is difficult to transfer complex, especially spatial, information via radio. This often results in differences in situational awareness between the office and field, sometimes with life threatening consequences.
More than 30 computerised incident management systems have been developed over the last 15 years. While all are different, incident management systems may be characterised as computer software that enables and automates the transfer of information between spatially separated teams and individuals. They also compile data from various sources so it can be viewed on the one screen.
While incident management systems are most commonly used to collate information in agency, state or country co-ordination centres, the source of this information is office based incident managers who have largely compiled this information by interpreting radio communications from the field. Hence, the information entered into incident management systems is often incomplete or inaccurate. A number of recent developments including, cloud computing, smart phones, tablet computers, increasing mobile phone coverage and mobile satellite internet, is making the use of incident management systems for real time field – office collaboration a practical reality.
Will the increasing field use of incident management systems mean the death of radio?
What is an Incident Management System?
An incident management system is computer software that partially automates some of the functions undertaken in incident management. While there is considerable variation between different systems, some common features include:
- Transfer of information between geographically separated users (e.g. maps, messages, tasks, logs).
- Automatic compilation of data from a range of sources so it may be viewed on a single screen (common operating picture).
- Storage of time stamped data that enables the reconstruction of incident progression and development.
Other functions available in some systems include:
- External messaging (e.g. text messages).
- Mapping and data visualisation.
- Resource allocation, tracking and planning.
- Data analytics.
- Development and implementation of plans.
- Workflow management.
- Modelling and simulation.
The real power of incident management systems comes from the integration of different data that allows the identification of patterns and functions that otherwise would not be possible. For example, the ability to send a message to a specific resource type based on its spatial location – this requires the integration of contact, resource type and location data.
Examples of existing incident management systems include WebEOC, Noggin OCA, Emergeo, the Next Generation Incident Command System, firesponse, swiftworks, DisasterLAN, OnScene Explorer, MissionMode, Veoci, Eccentex, Crisisworks, Cobra, Mission Manager, Rhodium Incident Management, Adashi, Atlas Incident Management System, Knowledge Centre, Shelkirk Systems, Alert OpsCentre and Burnology | Unite.
Today, many incident management systems are cloud based and can be run on any web enabled device. In recent years, many incident management systems have included a downloadable app, which enables data to be added to the system from the field.
Field use of incident management systems
To be used in the field, an incident management system must:
- Be optimised for use on mobile devices (e.g. designed to be visible on small screens, minimise data transfer from the device to the cloud).
- Be quick and simple to use (e.g. minimum use of text data entry, voice to text data entry, data entry via a map) ideally requiring no training.
- Maintain some functionality when out of internet coverage.
While primarily used in (and designed for) incident coordination centres, do any existing incident management systems have these characteristics? Well, yes they do and increasingly these characteristics are being built into incident management systems.
While remote area access to the internet remains the most significant challenge, some of the greatest obstacles to the field use of incident management systems are cultural, including adapting to a new way of doing things. Are incident responders ready to make such a change? A few practices that have recently become common suggest they are:
- Drawing on hard copy maps, taking photos of those maps and texting them.
- Taking and texting photos of the incident itself.
For field responders to use incident management systems, they must feel it will make their own job easier. This usually means the incident management system must allow three way communication:
- Field to office.
- Office to field.
- Field to field.
Unfortunately, most existing incident management systems are designed to ‘feed information up the line’ and are not designed for office to field and field to field communication.
Benefits to an agency from the field use of incident management systems include:
Better shared situational awareness between the office and field because complex data, including spatial data and photographs, can be shared in real time.
Data is entered once which is more efficient than transferring information by radio, transcribing it and then manually entering it into another system.
Everything related to an incident is kept in the one place – a single source of truth.
All data relating to an incident is stored electronically making searching and analysing easier.
Case study of the field use of an incident management system
Burnology | Unite, a map centric incident management system specifically designed for field use, was trialled in the Australian Capital Territory during a wildfire suppression exercise.
The main user interface of the system consists of a shared map that both office and field staff can make changes to with these changes visible to all users in real time. The shared map also provides access to other collaboration tools such as automatic resource tracking, messaging, tasking, intelligence log and photographs.
A survey conducted after the exercise found 90% of participants believed the system either improved or greatly improved information transfer and 100% believed the system improved or greatly improved situational awareness. The main information transferred using the system related to fire location, co-ordination, advantages, operations, safety, and assets. There was no significant difference in responses based on the role played by the participant (office or field) or their level of experience.
So is radio dead?
Field based incident management systems are not a direct competitor with radios but are a complimentary technology. Indeed, it is believed one of the most powerful things field based incident management systems enable is office based incident managers and field based incident responders to have a radio conversation while looking at exactly the same real time information (e.g. an annotated map). The field use of incident management systems does however throw out a huge challenge/opportunity to radio companies. That is, the development of technology that will enable reliable access to the internet, that incident management systems require, via radio networks. This will overcome what, despite all the recent developments, remains the biggest constraint to the field based use of incident management systems, that is, access to the internet in remote areas.
For more information, go to www.burnology.com